You may have seen this coming, but the whale is a metaphor.
Whalefall has one of the season’s best elevator pitches. What would it be like to be literally swallowed alive by a sperm whale? Could you survive? How could you possibly get out? How could you even get into that situation in the first place?
Author Daniel Kraus is utterly committed to this bit, throwing in a giant squid battle and group orca attack among countless other unlikely devices in spinning the tale of Jay, a teenage diver who ventures too close to an underwater canyon and quickly has reason to regret it.
It’s a harrowing tale, but it also feels interminable due to a device in which the narrative relentlessly flashes back to Jay’s turbulent history with his recently deceased father. The extended analogy between Jay’s emotional struggle with his dad and his literal struggle to escape the whale stomach is made so persistently explicit that it feels wrong for the book to be classed as science fiction. What we’re dealing with here is magical realism, in which the father has transformed into a whale and swallowed his own son, just so he can apologize at proper length.
The book’s sheer indelicacy is in some ways an asset. The explicit sentiment is so heavy-handed that Kraus has no need for subtler shades of meaning. The story’s principal narrative, which unfolds over the course of about an hour and a half — Kraus counts it down in pressure readings on Jay’s tank, which is an effectively ominous touch — has the young man clawing his way through the unspeakable contents of the whale’s stomachs with a determination that makes Rambo seem equivocal.
That element of the story has a certain brutal fascination, and after all you, unlike Jay, know what you’re getting into. It might have been a bit unremitting if it unfolded without interruption, but that also would have conserved the momentum that’s continually sapped by intrusive interludes of retrospective starring Jay’s brutal father.
The fragmented way in which we’re introduced to the late Mitt Gardiner doesn’t help us grasp the subtler qualities of his character, such as they might be. The book alternates between Jay’s brief, existential struggle and his father’s equally existential, much less brief apparent struggles with mental health and toxic masculinity — neither named as such, which feels a bit off given the gen-Z protagonist. Even when the whale starts speaking to Jay in the first-person plural, with the parties included in that royal “we” a matter of pointed discussion, it doesn’t speed the process of convergence.
Narrator Kirby Heyborne manifestly understands the need for a full-body approach here, and sounds like he’s giving himself a hernia as Jay labors to escape his acidic purgatory. It’s to the credit of Heyborne and the production team that the audiobook is so lucid: crucially, the book’s many transitions aren’t hurried.
That has the effect of extending a genuinely uncomfortable experience, but does translate the author’s intentions. This audiobook does indeed convey the sensation of being jammed inside an ailing sperm whale for ninety minutes. If only it unfolded in real time, instead of being stretched to eight hours with the story of a man whose inner life is much less complex than that of the whale he so identifies with.